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2016 Candidates, Beware of Going Whole Hawk

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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The polls are setting Republican politicians up for foreign-policy trouble. Let’s see which of them has really learned from Ronald Reagan, because they should all be studying his example right now.

Voters in the U.S. are turning increasingly hawkish. A new Fox News poll showed 65 percent of people in favor of military action “if that were the only way to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons,” and 52 percent supporting a “limited number of U.S. ground troops” as part of the fight in Iraq and Syria against Islamic State. Other polls back it up. According to a Quinnipiac survey released on Wednesday, 62 percent of Americans support sending U.S. ground troops to fight Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. 

So are voters no longer war-weary? How should politicians read these numbers?

On the one hand, voters in Republican primaries are receptive to bellicose oratory. That has been bad news for Rand Paul. Party opposition to his anti-interventionism has made his nomination improbable, and there’s now no chance he’ll flip the position of most party actors on foreign policy.

On the other hand, candidates should be very cautious about what they promise based on those polls.

Surveys such as these tell us at best one thing: what people are thinking now. They are worthless for predicting how anyone will react to changing circumstances. Far more reliable is the historical record on military action showing that initially popular wars tend to become unpopular (along with the presidents who conduct them) as casualties mount. See, for example, the Gallup approval numbers of Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush.

Perhaps just as relevant for a president contemplating military action is that when it goes well, a short, successful war is rapidly forgotten – as George H.W. Bush’s presidency demonstrates. Bush’s Iraq war went well (and so did his brief war in Panama), but the public-opinion rally he enjoyed wore off in time for him to be drubbed in 1992.

The problem is that candidates tend to carry out their promises. So the more hawkish the oratory a politician uses on the stump, and the more he or she hires staff who reflect those stances, the more likely military action becomes if that candidate wins the White House. By winning the nomination, a hawkish politician encourages the hawks in the party, and weakens those who are cautious about using force. At the same time, a president who has promised to be tough may (mistakenly) believe that going to war is the path of least resistance. An example of this was Barack Obama on Afghanistan; his surge there was consistent with his campaign rhetoric.

Republican presidential candidates will read the polls and be tempted to up the ante by out-promising one another on Islamic State, Iran, Russia and other foreign hot spots.

That’s where Reagan comes in. George W. Bush campaigned on foreign-policy humility and then got bogged down in two wars. Reagan talked tough on the campaign trail but didn’t specifically promise any military adventures. Once in office, and despite the debacle of the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, he restricted U.S. troops' combat to the risk-free invasion of Grenada.  

Of course, the next president may well believe that direct U.S. military action is necessary, regardless of the public-opinion consequences. Trapping himself or herself into it in the campaign, however, is a mistake, no matter what those polls say right now.

  1. What they tell us is more modest: If done properly, a poll conveys what the entire nation would answer if asked the same question in the same way. The relationship between those answers and any underlying attitudes or positions is more complex; a lot of us don’t have real stances on most issues, even if we’re willing to answer a pollster’s questions.

  2. To be sure, Reagan didn't escape foreign entanglements and disasters. Besides the Beirut bombing that killed 241 Marines, who were in the Mideast as part of a peacekeeping mission, the U.S. military was involved in the long-running war in Central America. But, generally, Reagan avoided combat deployments. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net